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President Obama and IS: Why presidents 'cannot be as small as they might like'

Despite the promises of candidate Obama to wind down US involvement in Iraq, the US – as the sole superpower – no longer has the luxury of choosing whether to take the lead in foreign affairs. It's a reality Obama, as president, came to reluctantly.

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    President Obama, flanked by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (l.) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaks to the media at the conclusion of a meeting with senior military leadership, on Wednesday, at the Pentagon.
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“The notion that as a consequence of that authorization, the president can continue down a failed path without any constraints from Congress whatsoever is wrong and is not warranted by our Constitution” – Remarks in 2007 by Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, criticizing President Bush’s decision to increase US military forces in Iraq based on a 2001 congressional authorization.

If we gauge a president’s success by his ability to achieve campaign promises, there is no doubt that in foreign policy President Obama has fallen far short of the mark. As research by Middlebury College student Danny Zhang of presidential candidate Obama's public remarks reminds us, Obama’s foreign policy agenda included two fundamental tenets: He would wind down US military involvement in Iraq, and he would return to a more collaborative and bipartisanship conduct of foreign affairs – one more nearly in accord with the Constitution.

Arguably, neither tenet has been met. It is now clear that Obama will almost certainly bequeath to his successor an anti-terror military campaign in Iraq and Syria intended to destroy the Islamic State (IS) that even the most optimistic projections suggest will last years, and with uncertain odds of success.  And rather than consult with Congress, Obama has justified his current air campaign against IS on the Bush-era 2001 authorization by Congress to use military force against terrorists who attacked the United States – the very premise he rejected on the presidential campaign trail while a US senator.

It is tempting to conclude from this record that candidate Obama was naive, if not duplicitous. But I have no doubt that he sincerely believed his rhetoric – as did most of those who voted for him. He likely did believe that, as he indicated to the Boston Globe, “[t]he President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” As I have often said, however, governing is far different than campaigning. The reason why President Obama’s foreign policy seems to have largely followed his predecessor’s blueprint is because the nature of the strategic threats to the United States has not changed across the two presidencies. Nor has the president’s constitutionally based responsibility to protect the nation from attack. That combination of similar threats and a shared vantage point made it almost certain that President Obama’s foreign policy would not deviate markedly from George W. Bush’s – a point some of us have made before.

Indeed, arguably Obama’s biggest foreign policy mistake occurred when he did try to deviate from his predecessor’s blueprint by ordering a full US military withdrawal from Iraq. One can debate what precipitated the US troop pullout; Obama’s supporters insist that Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki was unwilling to allow US forces to remain under a Status of Forces Agreement that protected US soldiers. More generally, as Obama argued in his recent 60 Minutes interview, it may be that the decision to withdraw was sound, but that the Iraqis then squandered the opportunity the US left them: “When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course. And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base.”

However, Obama’s former CIA director, Leon Panetta, is the latest ex-administration member to suggest Obama made little effort to overcome al-Maliki’s resistance to retaining a small US military force in Iraq in order to stabilize the regime and provide security against terrorist attacks. In excerpts from his book, "Worthy Fights: a Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace," Panetta writes: “Those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”

Whatever the explanation, the reality now is that the US is once again engaged in a military conflict in Iraq and Syria of indeterminate length and uncertain success. And, like his predecessor’s Iraqi war effort, Obama is trying to create an international “coalition of the willing” to help defeat IS. To date, however, the largely US-led campaign of targeted air strikes has not appeared to have had much success in rolling back IS’s territorial gains. That leaves open the possibility that at some point the US may have to increase its troop commitment beyond the nearly 2,000 now stationed in Iraq, if Obama’s war aims are to be reached – a troop increase that many military experts suggest is inevitable.

Nor has President Obama appeared to heed candidate Obama’s advice, as exemplified in the opening quotation to this piece, to conduct foreign policy in a more collaborative, bipartisan and constitutionally acceptable manner. In fact, as noted above, Obama has cited the Bush-era authorization of military force as the legal basis for the current bombing campaign against IS. Critics contend that this smacks of presidential imperialism. In truth, however, Obama’s actions are consistent with those of his predecessors, almost all of whom have sought to protect the presidency’s ability to fulfill its constitutional prerogative to defend the nation from attack. As Madison argues in Federalist 51, this effort to defend the presidency as an institution is both expected and desirable:

“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

Under Madison’s reasoning, it is Congress’s role to push back against this assertion by Obama of prerogative power.  However, as I noted in this previous post, many congressional Republicans are applauding Obama’s newfound militarism, while most Democrats do not want to take on their own president heading into a midterm election.

We should not be surprised, then, that as president, Obama more closely resembles President George W. Bush than he does Senator or candidate Obama. In the modern era, the United States – as the sole superpower – no longer has the luxury of choosing whether to take the lead in foreign affairs. That is a burden that cannot be removed, no matter how much Americans may yearn for – and candidates may promise – a return to normalcy. And the president, as the embodiment of national sovereignty, simply cannot delegate this leadership role to any other political actor.

In his study of American government, Woodrow Wilson wrote, “The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” In the modern era, however, as presidency scholar Richard Neustadt reminds us – and as President Obama has discovered – the president “nowadays cannot be as small as he might like.”

Senator Obama – meet the big man: President Obama.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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